“I’d like to challenge viewers to think about what the purpose of prison should be” questions Matt Hussey. “Should prison exist to punish, or rehabilitate, or a combination of the two?”
Photographer Matt Hussey tends to depict subjects are overlooked or underrepresented. Alongside commercial work for the likes of Samsung and Uber, the mostly self-taught photographer has previously documented communities such as the druids of Stonehenge and dementia sufferers. Recently however, Matt embarked on a five year project capturing a wild horse training programme in an Arizona men’s prison, called Tamed.
The unique form of rehabilitation pairs prisoners with geldings (castrated male horses), teaching the inmates how to tame the horses and in turn, themselves hopefully. Matt spent three days speaking to the prisoners, listening to their stories and interviewing the guards that work on the programme. Many of the programme’s participants had never seen a horse before but studies show that the rate of re-offending for those who pass through the horse gentling programme fell to 20% from the nation-wide figure of 76.6%.
On the project, Matt tells It’s Nice That, “I’ve always been interested in ideas of rehabilitation and was looking for a subject that explored that idea in an interesting way.” Upon finding the programme, he reached out to its leader Randy Helm who quickly granted Matt full access to Arizona State Penitentiary and the unique programme it hosts.
To qualify for the programme, the inmates need to have less than five years left to serve, with no penalties accrued while inside. He photographed men from all walks of life, from Manuel labourers, farm hands, welders, construction workers, truck drivers and other blue collar work. “There were a number of ex-military men” says Matt, “Two of which are under 35 years old and one of them was awarded the Purple Heart (a prestigious military honour) for his time in Iraq.”
There were a couple of older men too, Gary, in his mid-seventies, was serving 18 month for drug related offences. “His life had been ravaged by drug addiction” adds the photographer, “It’s a story I heard a lot; people got into drugs which led them down a road to jail.” Though the inmates are all photographed in orange jump suits, a sign of the severity of their situation, the fundamental aim of Matt’s series Tamed is to highlight the complexity of the American criminal justice system, and the challenges these people face when they enter back into society upon their release.
“America, and particularly Arizona has incredibly punitive laws around criminality” explains Matt. “One man in particular demonstrated this. He and two other accomplices tried to steal a fridge off the back of a truck. During the crime, an off-duty officer (who had been drinking) arrived, shot and killed one of the accomplices involved. In the Arizona legal system, that murder gets passed to the surviving accomplices. So attempted burglary becomes second-degree murder. Many of the men I spoke to had experiences like this. Others spoke about the plea-bargaining system that dominates the American justice system. This system encourages defendants to plead guilty without going to trial to get a lighter sentence – prosecutors often overstate their case against defendants to encourage the practice, and many cannot afford their own legal defences (outside state appointed representation).”
Becoming close with a number of the inmates, Matt and those he photographed shared in-depth details about their lives and relationships. He intends to keep in touch with them over facebook and hopes to challenge the stigma surrounding the dehumanisation of those that have been incarcerated. “Jail is designed to dehumanise people so that we can treat prisoners in a different way. The men I met were warm, articulate, caring people who had made a series of bad decisions, and now they’re living the result of their actions” says Matt.
But locking these men up and giving them no hope doesn’t stop them from re-offending, Matt evaluates from the significant drop of re-offenders that take part in the gentling programme. “Giving inmates an opportunity to find a new path is often the most effective tool for keeping them out of jail, and a society we need to rethink what prison is ultimately for, and what purpose it serves?”
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